Proudly hanging from the rafters of the Arena-Auditorium, next to the CBI Championship banner the University of Wyoming men’s team earned last year, is the WNIT participant banner the Cowgirls earned after a stellar season turned sour.

The Cowgirls started Mountain West Conference play 7-0 and were in contention for the regular season conference crown when junior standout Liv Roberts went down with a knee injury. Wyoming finished the regular season on a three-game winning streak but missed their leader in the Mountain West Tournament and during the WNIT second-round loss to Washington State.

Roberts has yet to be cleared for full contact in practice, but the Cowgirls return all but one player to the roster for this season. That has led to heightened expectations this year in Laramie.

“It felt awesome to get back to that tradition of Wyoming basketball,” senior Natalie Baker said. “We hope to carry that into this year. We definitely think we will just by having everyone back, it’s a ton of experience as far as defense and being in tight games, winning on the road, we did a lot of that last year.”

Defense was a point of emphasis going into last season. Head coach Joe Legerski believed being a more defensively aggressive team fit his personnel and would carry them into the conference schedule.

The Cowgirls are continuing their defensive emphasis for the 2017-18 season, albeit with the volume turned up.

“We’re taking it up a notch,” Legerski said. “We had tremendous success last year and I feel like we went back to what we used to do: defend, try and get as efficient on offense.

“This year we’re trying to take that to a different level. We have to cut down on the amount of mistakes, defensively, try and get more stops and then, more importantly, execute better on offense.”

Roberts and Baker both expected to be the two top contributors that they were. But the Cowgirls also received key performances from a number of players.

Junior Bailee Cotton started 31 of 32 games in her first fully healthy season at Wyoming and led the team in rebounds eight times.

She said her teammates embraced how successful they were with the defensive mentality, which has made them all the more excited to work harder and go further.

“We are definitely focusing on that,” Cotton said. “It brought us a lot of success last year so I think we’re bumping it up a little bit, putting on some more pressure.”

Taylor Rusk played in all 32 games as a freshman and averaged 6.3 points. She hit double-digits on six occasions on her way to the making the conference All-Freshman team.

“It was definitely a different role coming off the bench, I never experienced that in high school,” Rusk said. “I definitely liked it, bringing up the game when I walked on the court and just hitting those shots when I needed to, running the offense when I needed to.”

She admitted it took a little time for her to adjust to the college game and Legerski’s system, but once she felt comfortable it showed in her game.

Former starting point guard Hailey Ligocki is the only player graduated from last season, so Rusk is excited about the prospect of returning to a starting line-up.

The new face to the program this year is Sladjana Rokovic. A junior college transfer from Western Nebraska Community College, Rakovic plays the wing and averaged double-figure points in both her freshman and sophomore seasons.

Just like last season, the Cowgirls begin with a demanding non-conference schedule. They will play in the UCF Thanksgiving Classic and finish the non-conference season at perennial power Duke.

Considering the early road loss to Michigan State and upset of then-Top 25 Colorado to end last year’s non-conference schedule, the team welcomes the bigger opportunities.

“The No. 1 thing with those higher-league teams is just to be able to compete,” Roberts said. “We didn’t know what we could do with Michigan State, so to show we could compete with them just shows this year we can do the exact same thing with Duke.”

The overall goals for this season have not changed. Roberts is right where the doctors hoped she would be with her rehab and is expected to return to full-contact early in the season.

Picked to finish eighth in the Mountain West in 2016-17, the Cowgirls surpassed all expectations. Legerski was honored as conference coach of the year because of it.

This season, they are prepared to do the same on a much bigger scale.

“What we have now, we’re way ahead of where we were last year,” Roberts said. “But we need to not be satisfied with that. We know we’re good enough to go into conference and compete with San Diego State and all those teams.

“We want to dominate, we want to beat CSU, we want to be undefeated in conference play. So I think that’s something that is driving us and motivating us throughout the season.”

Follow sports reporter Brady Oltmans on Twitter @Brady_CST

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Brady Oltmans reports on high school and local sports. He joined the Star-Tribune in July 2016 after covering prep sports and college soccer in Nebraska. He also contributes to University of Wyoming sports coverage. He and his dog live in Casper.

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